Essay: Response to Memo

To: Matt Richtel
From: Haley Fox
CC: Social Science Writing Guild
Date: 28 September 2014
Re: You Can’t Take It With You, But You Still Want More




This memo is written in review your article, “You Can’t Take It With You, But You Still Want More,” in order to help improve the veracity of your social science reporting and the reporting of the guild at large. The research article, “Overearning” by Hsee et al., explores a not often thought about phenomenon, in which people tend to “forgo leisure to work beyond one’s needs” (Hsee et al., 852). Your newspaper article does represent Hsee et al.’s research in a way that is both simplified and interesting to the reader. Unfortunately, in your effort to present the marrow of this seldom studied human behavior, there were certain aspects that you did not include that would have helped represent a more complete understanding of the research at hand.

Summary of and Notes on the Original Research

Hsee et al.’s research article examines the data produced by a series of experiments that tested the tendency of individuals (in this case, several samples of college students) to overearn, even when no profit is forthcoming and the action is detrimental to personal happiness. It appears that this phenomenon of overearning is a result of mindless accumulation, or “a tendency to work and earn until feeling tired rather than until having enough” (Hsee et al., 852). The study has strong internal validity, meaning it exhibits many characteristics that a well-executed study ought to, and the researchers can identify a clear cause and effect; however, due to the highly controlled test environment, it presents many limitations when applied to a broader spectrum. Hsee et al. operationalized the experimental study by creating an extremely minimal test mimicking leisure and work, in which participants could choose to listen to music, or interrupt the music with an unpleasant noise. The amount of times the participant chose the noise translated into an amount of chocolate they earned, which could be eaten in the next phase of the test. The participants’ only stipulation was to make themselves happy.

The researchers conducted three separate experimental tests to explore different facets of the notion of mindless accumulation. The first study predicted that a randomized sample of participants who were given a higher earning rate (meaning they could earn more chocolate for less work) would overearn more heavily than another randomized sample that had a lower earning rate. This test lends credibility to the theory of mindless accumulation because even though both groups did the same amount of work for different amounts of chocolate, each group average for chocolate consumed was similar. A strength this study exhibits is the presence of a pretest in which a different set of participants verified that the unpleasantness of the noise and also predicted the amount of chocolate the high earners or low earners would actually eat. The second study looked at if overearning would be affected if it made the consumption experience less enjoyable. This study simultaneously tested another aspect of the mindless accumulation theory: the idea that asking a participant to gauge how much they wanted to earn before they began the test would both reduce overearning and increase happiness. Because the researchers could not ethically force the participants to eat all the chocolate they earned, they changed the reward to an amount of jokes presented to the participant. The more jokes the participant earned, the less time each joke would have on the screen. There were again two randomized groups of participants; one that was not prompted to think about how many jokes they wanted to read, and one that was. The researchers also recorded data measuring the happiness of each participant on an ordinal scale of very unhappy to very happy. Although this scale is not very descriptive, due to the minimal nature of the test, it is sufficient. The results of this test agreed with the presented hypothesis: even when overearning would disrupt the participant’s experience, those in the control group continued to overearn, whereas most participants that were asked to think about their consumption stopped “working” once they had reached their goal and achieved higher average levels of happiness than those in the control group. The third study wondered if setting an earning cap, meaning the participant could not work for more than a certain pre-set amount of chocolate, would affect levels of happiness. It was found that the participants in the control group again earned approximately twice as many chocolates as they ate and were also less happy than the group that was given and earning cap.

While these findings are not externally valid and cannot be applied to the workforce at large because they chose to get their sample of participants by way of convenience, these three studies discovered that college students do tend to overearn, even when the rewards are trivial. Although the researchers themselves acknowledge that this research used “contrived procedures” and was therefore unable to “capture the richness of real earning environments” (858), this allowed them to remove the presence of any spurious mediating variables. This suggests that overearning may be caused by the notion of mindless accumulation. The researchers are able to establish correlation by observing the differences between the control and experimental groups from pretest to posttest and time order because these observations were made only after the test was done. Although the findings are non-generalizable, I do believe that performing a highly controlled experiment was the only way the researchers could have created a basis from which others can build on to further research in this specific field. This research serves as a strong foundation to create a dialogue on this scarcely examined behavior, and in that, it succeeds.

Notes on Your Article

Before I begin, I want to make it clear that I understand how difficult of a task it is to write about a nine-page research article when the journalistic world demands the article to be interesting, accurate, and confined within of a strict word limitation. However, though you do portray some very important aspects of the research, I do believe that overall, the article could have presented a more complete view of the research in order to accurately represent it.

One of your main strengths is how well you discuss the methodology of the first study. You were able to concisely relay the experiment and its results while incorporating a thought provoking quote from one of the paper’s authors. Unfortunately, one of the problems you run into early on is using jargon from the research paper without properly explaining what it means. One such term is “mindless accumulation,” which appears in the first sentence of your article with little by way of definition. Although the reader might pick it up from context, the sentence after it gives the reader the definition for overearning, not the definition for mindless accumulation. An important part of the research article was the idea that this theory of mindless accumulation is the instinct to work until one is tired rather than until one has enough resources. While the two definitions seem similar, it is important to remember that while there is evidence that the idea of mindless accumulation is in a causal relationship with the phenomena of overearning, they are not the same. In addition, your explanation of what defines “high earner” and a “low earner” was at first hard to understand because of its specificity. I believe your article would have benefitted from a phrase explaining that when someone is “high earning,” it means they do less work to earn more. In this specific case it meant listening to less noise to earn more chocolate, but this idea of high and low earners plays out in the actual workforce and is easier to comprehend when described more generally. You do a very good job of explaining the results of the first study, and your sentence explaining that those results show that “both groups were driven by… not how much they need, but by how much work they could withstand” (Richtel, 2) was expertly delivered; I do wish, however, that you had made a distinction here between the idea of overearning and that of mindless accumulation. There is also an instance in your article where you relayed a part of the study’s operationalization incorrectly. When you discussed what the participants were told about the second phase of the test, you wrote that the same participants who were going to be eating the chocolate also predicted beforehand how much chocolate they would expect to eat. This is incorrect, and if it were true, the results of this test would have been severely different. The research article itself specifies that the researchers “predicted the optimal number [of chocolates eaten] by describing the study’s procedure to another group of respondents,” (Hsee et al., 855). One of the principles of the theory of mindless accumulation states that once an individual is asked to think of how much they plan to work for, they will self-monitor their tendency to overearn and exhibit more happiness. The second experiment of the research article clearly displays the effects of this premeditation, and thus the same group could not have been asked how much they expected to eat. I am, however, very glad that you recognized in your article that this study does not exactly fit into the real world, being as it is strong in that it establishes that the concept of mindless accumulation is an intrinsic part of human behavior, but cannot accurately be generalized to apply to a real world situation.


Overall, I believe the research conducted by Hsee et al. was strong due to its internal validity, the abundance of highly controlled tests that did not allow for mediating variables, and the correlation between mindless accumulation and overearning the study was able to support, even though it does not present an ability to be applied to real world situations. Unfortunately, I did not find your news article to be an extremely accurate rendition of the research, but I believe these shortcomings were caused mainly by the need to compile information to make up for the word limit. You were able to acknowledge the shortcomings of the study, which many journalists do not seem to find the space to do, so for that I applaud you. This article does, however, only explain one aspect of this many-faceted study, and I believe you would have benefited from letting the reader know, even in brief, that other studies were concluded. Perhaps one way we can save space in the future is to extract quotes from people who were not found in the research? While this would make the article less humanistic, I believe it would both give us more space to expand upon the findings at hand and keep us centered on what the study is really trying to say.

From, Haley Fox


Hsee, C. K., Zhang, J., Cai, C. F., & Zhang, S. (2013). Overearning. Psychological Science,

24(6), 852-859.

Richtel, M. (2014, January 4). You Can’t Take It With You, but You Still Want More. The New

York Times. Retrieved September 25, 2014, from


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